If the 16 members of the Wellington Phoenix Football Academy were underwhelmed by its opening yesterday, Ernie Merrick soon put them straight.
The Phoenix's A-League coach won't be hands-on at the club's new venture - at least not this year.
But he knows a thing or two about preparing youth footballers for the big stage, from his 13 years as head coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport. And it was a story from the old days that he relayed to the Phoenix academy's inaugural intake, to give them a sense of what they're now part of.
"At the VIS, and I was telling this story to the boys earlier, I remember saying to the CEO 'among these 14, 15, 16-year-olds there's about $4 million worth here'," Merrick said.
"He wasn't a football man, he was an AFL man, where there's no money, and he said 'yeah, yeah'. But, sure enough, a lot of those boys went on to Europe and became very, very wealthy boys and if they didn't make it there they certainly played 17s and 19s for Australia and several of them are still in the Australian senior team and they populated a lot of the A-League teams as well."
Merrick has studied academy set-ups at big clubs all over the world and devised programmes and standards that he feels will help the Phoenix become a club that builds players, not buys them.
It'll all allied to scholastic achievement, which is a big reason why this academy is based at Scots College.
Balance and fun are everything in life, in Merrick's view, and producing "well rounded" men is as important to him as footballers.
"You've got to have your education, your elite sport pathway and a social and family life. They all go together, so it's well balanced and there's not too much of anything," he said.
"But you certainly do not want youngsters to focus purely on sport and neglect an education because when they earn a couple of million dollars a week then they can learn how to invest it through having a degree in economics."
The last part was said with laughter, but Merrick can point to a player like Vince Grella, who went from his VIS programme and into a lucrative and successful 10-year career in Italy's Serie A and then the English Premier League.
The Phoenix academy was launched in conjunction with the old Christchurch-based Asia Pacific Football Academy, with about half the players having been members of the existing programme. Most now board at Scots, with a couple in "home stays" said Phoenix general manager David Dome.
Next term there will be 20 players and more than 30 come next year, as the club seeks to build pathways where none really existed previously.
"This is huge, this is the future of the club right here," Dome said.
"We seriously believe that in this group here, there will be a pro Phoenix player and probably an All White."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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